We've all heard of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Most of us are at least generally aware of Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. How about WhatsApp? Kik? Tellonym? Burnr? (OK, I made that last one up but the other three are definitely real). Social media isn't going away any time soon, nor is kids' desire to hide their online interactions from their parents, so it's important that you spend time teaching your child best practices for interacting with others online, even if they think these are private messages among friends.
What experts are saying: The field of social media use and how to navigate it as parents is a rapidly growing and evolving field, and oftentimes the best experts are those on the front lines: parents. Although there are apps out there that allow to monitor the content on your child's phone, I'm generally not a fan of that sort of Big Brother/Orwellian oversight. Developing a trusting, open relationship with your kids around phone usage is a far more healthy practice, though admittedly more difficult. Thankfully the CoolMomTech blog has four awesome suggestions about things that you should make sure your kids know as they use whatever social media app their friends are into:
- Everything is on the internet forever. Although many social media apps (cough, Snapchat, cough) emphasize that they don't keep what you send, the reality is that isn't always true. The recipient can save it, the data is stored (even if only temporarily) on servers, and occasionally you'll make mistakes about where you're posting. Emphasize to your kids over and over that they shouldn't post anything that they wouldn't want the whole world to see and know... because there's always the possibility that they might.
- Adults are here to help. This gets into the whole not spying on your kids thing from above. Ideally, you want your children to know that they can come to you if they're having an issue (cyberbullying, online creeps, etc.) or if they encounter something online that's troubles them. Being a caring, protective presence doesn't mean knowing every last thing they're doing online or in real life, but it does mean that when they need help, they're not afraid to come to you.
- Just because it's on the internet doesn't make it true. This one isn't just for kids, sadly. The entire world seems to be confused by fake news, deep fakes, and satirical articles taken as fact. Critical thinking is a vital skill for virtually every online interaction - and it sometimes (always?) pays to double-check on things before you start retweeting or commenting on them.
- Be kind. Everyone has their own version of what "being kind" means, but one of the key things to emphasize is that you would treat others exactly the same as you would in real life. Oftentimes the anonymity of the internet can embolden both kids and adults to say things that they would never say in real life. Don't do that. Don't post hurtful things about others. Don't feed the trolls. Treat others the way that you'd like to be treated.
What our faith says: There obviously weren't social media apps in the biblical world, but our online interactions and communities should aspire to the exact same standards that our real-life ones do. The twelfth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans sums it up well:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all".
Is that too lofty a goal for how we interact with others online and in real life? It's certainly lofty, but the world would be a much better place if we could all follow those words!
For further reading/reflection: